“Just Like Always”

Brittany Sweet

All rights reserved by the author

 

            Our Father who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name. Protect your children in their time of need. Deliver us from evil, and extend your protective hand over us all. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, this I pray.

When Elicia had first heard about the aliens, she’d prayed. It was all she could think of to do. At the time, they’d all been convinced that the world was going to come to an end, and nothing they did really mattered. People had run wild in the streets, killing and stealing. The smell of fear had hung, almost tangible, in the air. In that time, insanity had ruled.

Elicia hadn’t moved from her little apartment, locked tight and as secure as she could hope for. She’d been glued to the television, waiting for any kind of news. She’d slept on the couch and ate all her meals in the living room, just so she could see the TV at all times. She would even dream about the news, about places being attacked and people dying. Then she’d wake with a start and go back to watching, needing to see that her dreams hadn’t become reality and that things were still ok, for now.  

Then the aliens had started talking, and things had only gotten worse. It was a long and involved speech, but in the end the meaning had been simple. The aliens wanted their planet, but they didn’t want the humans that came with it. Humans went in the space of seconds from the supreme rulers of the planet to vermin, just waiting to be exterminated. The ships set down soon after, and the massacres had begun. In the areas where the ships had landed, everyone died. No one could resist.

Elicia didn’t like to think about what happened after that. No one did. No one had ever thought that the nuclear bomb could fail, but it did. Their strongest weapon had turned out to be useless. The entire human race was doomed.

Elicia woke to the peculiar little ping that told her that she had an urgent message. For a moment she thought about just turning over and going back to sleep, ignoring whoever it was that wanted her attention. Unfortunately, that probably wouldn’t be a good idea.

Frowning slightly, Elicia rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, wishing she could somehow rub out the lingering feelings that the dream/memory had left as well. Then she reached down to the belt that she was required to have on her person at all times. For a moment she entertained an unreasonable surge of hostility against the damned thing. If it weren’t for that stupid belt she could still be sleeping. If it weren’t for that stupid belt she wouldn’t be in this situation to begin with. She shook her head. If it weren’t for that stupid belt you wouldn’t be alive, she reminded herself.

Reaching down, she activated it, commanding, “Play message,” in a clear voice.

Immediately, the belt came to life. “Message from Commander Vatta. Urgency level: 9.” Elicia rolled her eyes at that. Looked like she was in for another dangerous mission that she might never come back from. Why was she not surprised? She grimaced as the Commander’s recorded voice ordered her sharply, “Elicia Bishop, report to my tent ASAP,” as if she had been just waiting to be told to go out and risk her life. If nothing else came out of this summons, Elicia hoped that this mission would end up taking her out from under Commander Vatta’s command. If that meant having to deal with her politely one last time before she escaped…Well, Elicia supposed she could handle that.

Outside her tent, the camp was quiet. There had been a storm the day before that had done considerable damage to the rather makeshift encampment. Cleaning up had been hard work, so now everyone was sleeping. Which I’d really like to be doing myself, Elicia thought irritably. With a scowl on her face, Elicia began making her way to the Commander’s tent.

The Commander’s tent was large and well-lit. Those were always the first things anyone noticed about it. Probably the Commander thought it was impressive. Elicia thought it just made her a bigger target. But if that was the way that she wanted it, who was Elicia to object? If the woman wanted to make a fool of herself, let her. Elicia sighed. Judging by the track her own thoughts were taking, this wasn’t going to be fun. Steeling herself for the unpleasant task ahead of her, Elicia pushed past the flap and into the tent.

  

            Making her way out of the tent a short while later, Elicia tucked the small piece of cloth out of sight but not out of mind. Because of that small piece of cloth she would be going out into the heart of enemy territory, once again risking her life for a message that she would never even know. And the worst of it was, she had no way to even be sure that this was an important message. It could very well be just Commander Vatta wanting to ask Commander Quincy how the weather was on the other side of enemy territory. After all, since Commander Vatta hadn’t deemed it necessary for her to know the contents of the message she was delivering she couldn’t say one way or the other.

If only the aliens didn’t have the ability to intercept any and all messages sent through technological means. Unfortunately though, they did have the ability, and had done so quite often in the early days of the war. Which had led her to her current job, running messages for all the big shots in command, and risking her life on an almost daily basis.

Which led her back to the source of her discontent. Elicia scowled. Ordering her to take a course straight through enemy territory! Was the woman deliberately trying to kill her? What could be so important that she couldn’t spare a few more days in order to skirt enemy territory instead of going straight through it?

Still complaining to herself, Elicia entered her tent and began gathering together her things. Most of it was pretty simple. She knew how to travel light. That had been one lesson that she’d learned early. But there were some things that she might need that she wouldn’t think of. That was where her special belt came in handy. Activating it, she said, “Packing for a dangerous mission. Any recommended items?”

The belt was silent for a moment, then said, “Extra water rations for unexpected dry conditions. Less food due to good mulberry crop. Sturdy shoes to compensate for rough ground.” It fell silent.

“Anything else?” Elicia prompted.

“10,000 fully armed individuals for backup to survive enemy encampment,” the belt said in its expressionless recorded voice.

Elicia rolled her eyes. Sometimes she wondered if whoever had made these things didn’t have a really sick sense of humor. Still, she supposed it was excusable. Anyone could become twisted in circumstances like these.

Sighing, Elicia moved the packed bag off of her pallet, and then shucked her boots. The Commander had been pretty explicit about the urgency of this mission, but there was no way she was going to risk herself unnecessarily by trying to go anywhere in the dead of the night. She’d probably end up breaking her ankle or something else similarly vital if she tried. Slipping into the pallet, she let her eyes drift closed. She was going back to sleep, and if the Commander had a problem with that, well, that was just too damned bad.

 

This time Elicia realized almost immediately that she was dreaming. She always did when she had this particular dream. She hadn’t been there when her father fell ill in real life, but in her dreams she always was right by his side when it occurred.

It happened quickly. One minute the two of them were arguing, the next he was on the ground, and she couldn’t wake him no matter how hard she tried. He wasn’t the only one either. Within a matter of days, all the men in the world were in comas. Unwakeable, unshakeable comas, and there was no cure, no treatment. Nothing they could do except turn their attention towards driving out these alien invaders.

Elicia had been one of the first to join the new women’s army, and one of the youngest as well. The training was tough, but quick. They didn’t have time for anything prolonged. Then she’d been thrown into the field, just like that, battling an enemy she wasn’t even sure could be killed, that had technology that they weren’t even close to understanding. It seemed hopeless. And yet they were holding out. Still holding out, two years later. Two long and bloody years in which death became a frequent visitor, and fighting was all that was left to any of them. Some people claimed it was a miracle. Elicia was more inclined to believe that it was a curse.

 

             The jungle was never entirely silent. There was always some sound in the distance, some indication that she wasn’t as alone as she felt, that somewhere out there life went on beyond aliens and wars and endless death. Elicia always found that reassuring, even if whatever was making the noises wasn’t.

It was two days after she’d been sent on the mission. The previous night had been a miserable affair, huddling in a tree listening to the sounds of the creatures of the night. She’d slept, but not as well as she’d have liked. At dawn she’d been back on the trail, trying to get as far as she could before darkness once again fell.

Speed was of the utmost importance in missions like this. The less time she spent in enemy territory, the less chance that she would end up getting caught. Intent on that goal, she sped up her pace a little more, wishing she could just fly ahead through time to a point where she wasn’t at war, wasn’t fearing for her life, wasn’t always so alone.

Shaking her head, Elicia tried to dispel those thoughts from her mind. They weren’t doing her any good, and they could do her a lot of harm if she allowed them to distract her long enough. Elicia forced her attention back on her surroundings just in time to realize that something was very wrong.

She paused, trying to pinpoint what the problem was. Just as she’d figured out that the forest was entirely silent, the belt chimed in with the warning, “Enemy energy detected. Enemy energy detected. Enemy energy detect-”

Elicia hit the belt for silence, retreating from the direction she’d been heading in. It was an uncanny power of the aliens that when they attacked, it was always in the place you’d been heading to, and never in the one that you’d been coming from. It made stopping and considering things a good idea, and it generally made retreating an even better one. And sure enough, just a few seconds later there was a loud explosion from somewhere behind her. She could easily guess that it was exactly where she would have been if she hadn’t stopped.

Pushing herself into a light jog, Elicia reactivated the belt. “Which way?” she demanded of it, hoping that command would be enough to prompt it to the maps of this area that she’d so carefully installed in it.

“Left turn in 3…2…1,” the belt said emotionlessly.

Elicia obediently turned onto the faint game trail that appeared on her left, hoping the belt knew what it was talking about. “Where’s the enemy?”

“Enemy at three o’clock. Approximate distance 100 meters and receding.”

“Give me a report on enemy movement every 90 seconds,” she commanded it. “Also, alert me of any natural hazards and the best route to take to avoid them.”

Focusing on maintaining as much speed as possible while not exhausting herself, Elicia scrupulously followed the instructions that were given to her by the belt, despite her occasional doubts about the wisdom of such blind faith. It would be so easy, so very easy if someone didn’t like her, if someone wanted to get her out of the way, to just tamper a little with the belt, change a few pieces of information here and there. It’d be so easy…She couldn’t think like that though. Couldn’t afford to doubt the only guidance that she had. The only thing she could really do was run, and hope. Run, and hope.    

 

            This camp wasn’t as dead as the one she’d left behind. It lived and breathed and moved like it was a living creature itself, instead of just holding them. The belt had come through for her once again. She had escaped from the aliens. She had escaped from the forest. And for the moment she had escaped from her own death. She didn’t even try to convince herself that it would be a long reprieve, but at least it was something. Life was so precious in these times. She would never surrender it, not while there was the smallest bit of fight left in her.

Shaking her head, Elicia forced the morbid thoughts from her head. Thinking too much was just as dangerous as thinking too little in circumstances like this. She couldn’t afford to dwell on the rest of the world. It would disrupt her concentration. She had to keep her attention on the present, at least while she was awake. The past was a thing for the nighttime, and for dreams.

Commander Quincy’s tent was in the center of camp, just as she’d expected it to be. It was larger than other tents, but only slightly. Other than that, it was standard military issue. The only true distinguishing feature was the guard posted by the tent flap, warily perusing her as she drew closer.

Elicia stopped a few feet away and withdrew the small piece of cloth that had made her travel so far and in so much danger. “Message for Commander Quincy,” she said, voice hoarse from days of relative disuse.

The guard gave her one more suspicious look, then reached for the cloth. “Need to make sure it’s legit,” she explained, and Elicia nodded her acceptance.

The guard keyed the message, and a voice from the cloth said, “Urgent message for Commander Quincy from Commander Vatta. To be delivered by messenger Elicia Bishop’s hand only.”

The guard nodded and handed the cloth back to Elicia. “Looks good. Go right in. The Commander’s still up.”

Elicia nodded her thanks and entered the tent. The Commander looked up at her entrance, a short woman with graying hair who might have been plump in another time and place. Here, she was rail thin, most likely courtesy of sharing the same rations as her troops, if Elicia had her pegged right. If the tent was any indication, she was a fair commander. At her inquiring look, Elicia extended the piece of cloth to her. “Message from Commander Vatta,” she said by way of explanation.

Commander Quincy took the message from her hand, but didn’t key into it. “How long ago?” she asked instead.

Elicia counted the days in her head. “Five days.”

The Commander’s eyes widened. “You made good time.”

Elicia shrugged. “I had to. They were on my tail for most of the trip. I was hard-pressed to make it here alive.”

“I see. Well, you must be tired then, after all of your hard work. I’ll have a tent set up for you. You’re free to help yourself to extra rations, if you so desire. I’d say you deserve it.”

Elicia nodded. “Thank you, Commander.”

The Commander shook her head. “No need to thank me. It’s the least I can do. You’re dismissed.”

Elicia saluted briskly and turned to the entrance of the tent. As soon as she got outside the tent, all of the exhaustion that she’d been holding back through sheer willpower up until this point came crashing down on her. In a daze, she let herself be guided first to the food, and then to her own tent. As soon as her guide had left she settled into her pallet. She was asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.

            Someone was talking, Elicia realized through the haze of sleepiness that had gripped her brain. Forcing her eyes open, she pulled herself into a sitting position and tried to locate the source of the voice. It wasn’t her belt, laying quietly around her waist. From what she could see, there was no one else in the tent that could be speaking either. And the voice had suddenly and conspicuously gone silent. Maybe she’d been dreaming. Maybe she’d woken herself sleep-talking. But it didn’t feel like that was the case.

“Elicia Bishop, are you awake?” a voice demanded of her.

Elicia shook her head to clear the last of the sleepiness from it, and replied, “Yes, I’m awake. What is it?”

“The Commander requests your presence in her tent immediately.”

Elicia grimaced. Already? And if it was so urgent, why hadn’t they signaled her with the belt?

“She did signal with the belt, but you didn’t respond,” the voice replied, and Elicia realized that she’d asked the question out loud.

Elicia pushed the alarm that provoked in her aside and said, “Right. I’ll be out in a second.” She refused to think about the fact that it’d taken a real human being to wake her from sleep. She refused to admit that she must be nearing the end of her reserves if she was sleeping so deeply. She refused to contemplate how much more danger this put her in, relying on her senses as she did while delivering messages. None of that mattered. Maybe in a saner time she could have applied for a brief rest period before she had a mental breakdown. But this wasn’t a saner time, and she knew that there was no one to replace her even if she did ask for a break. They couldn’t spare her, and well she knew it. If the Commander asked, she’d say she’d had a little too much to drink before going to sleep, nothing more.

She would go on whatever mission was assigned to her, just as she always did. She would do her best, just as she always did. And if her best wasn’t good enough this time, she’d die. Just like they always did. This war was hers to fight, and fight she would, until it was over, or until she was dead.

Grant me the courage to fight as you see fit, and when I die, take me softly into your loving embrace. So help me God.

Amen.

 

© Copyright 2005 by the author

All rights reserved